December 15, 2006


The English in Us (DIANE RAVITCH and MICHAEL RAVITCH, December 15, 2006, NY Sun)

In 1910, when Robert Frost taught at a high school in rural New Hampshire, he expected his students to memorize poems by William Wordsworth, Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Rudyard Kipling. Today it is hard to imagine a high school teacher assigning a similar program.

For most of the 20th century, in schools across America, Frost's assignment would not have been considered at all unusual. Indeed, most parents and high school teachers believed that the literary masterpieces of the English tradition were essential elements in a decent education, a shared legacy that every educated person was expected to know.

Nowadays few high school and also not many college students have read Wordsworth, Browning, Tennyson, or Kipling. Even the best-educated students are unlikely to have encountered such great prose writers as Samuel Johnson and Thomas Carlyle, whose works were once considered the birthright of anyone who spoke the English language. These are precious resources of language and spirit that we have neglected to preserve for future generations.

This month, Oxford University Press is publishing our anthology of the greatest poems, essays, songs, and speeches of Great Britain, which we titled "The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs to Know." We deliberately chose a provocative subtitle because it is time, we think, to resist the growing impoverishment of our common cultural memory.

Not that the book isn't entirely worthy, or that we all ought to read more Johnson, Carlyle, MacCaulay, Pepys, etc., but ask any kid to recite a poem to you and he'll only know those by the Amer-English masters.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 15, 2006 7:17 AM
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